Danto’s “Transfiguration of the Commonplace”; A Generously Cosmopolitan Theory of Art

23 Mar

Arthur Danto’s Transfiguration of the Commonplace

    Consider Marcel Duchamp’s Fountain. It is simply a urinal, with “R. Mutt” written on the side. Is it an artwork? Kant would have us answer this question by deciding whether we can engage in the harmonious free play of the cognitive faculties as we look at it. Let us say that we do. In that case, Kant would say it must be art and it must be beautiful. But let us consider all the other urinals built, which all look identical to Fountain. Since we are basing our determination of this object as art based on our Kantian visual analysis of it, it follows that all of these urinals would have to be considered artworks as well. And yet, that sounds ridiculous, because we would never say that the public urinal at the rest stop is art. What is Kant’s theory missing?

    In the first four chapters of Arthur Danto’s book Transfigurations of the Commonplace, Danto pushes against theories of art which use aesthetic or expressive properties to identify works of art, arguing that these properties are not enough to distinguish between mere real things and works of art, especially in the cases where a mere real thing and an artwork are visually so similar that it is impossible to tell which object is which simply by observation. To illustrate this, Danto gives us an example of several objects which all look identical, and yet are not all works of art. The first is a painting of the Israelites crossing the Red Sea, and it is a simply a red square on canvas. Then there is a painting adjacent to it called “Kierkegaard’s Mood,” which consists of a set of red rectangles placed next to each other. Then next to this painting is a landscape painting called “Red Square,” which resembles the other two paintings exactly. Several other works by other names and by other artists are placed next to these works, such as Matisse’s “Red Table Cloth” and a metaphysical painting titled “Nirvana.” There is also the unfinished Giorgione canvas which would have been titled “Conversazione Sacra,” and it is merely a canvas primed with red paint.

All of these objects are materially identical. Yet they all have profoundly different expressive contents, and not all of them are even artworks. This example shows how expressive or aesthetic properties alone cannot define something as an artwork. Contrary to Kant’s aesthetic theory which implores us to look at an object without outside information to determine its beauty and status as art, Danto shows us through this example that it is absolutely necessary to consider an object’s context, and not only the properties conveyed through its materials, to determine not only its meaning but also whether it is art.

For Danto, Andy Warhol’s Brillo Boxes defied traditional definitions of art because they depend on criteria which the Brillo Boxes render ineffective. In fact, Danto goes so far as to say that with the Brillo Boxes, “the possibilities” for exclusive definitions of art “are effectively closed and that the history of art has come, in a way, to an end. It has not stopped but ended, in the sense that it has passed over into a kind of consciousness of itself and become, again in a way, its own philosophy: a state of affairs predicted in Hegel’s philosophy of history.” The problem that Brillo Boxes raises lies in the fact that Warhol’s creation looked identical to the commercial Brillo pad container, and yet Warhol’s was a work of art worth a substantial amount of money while the product can be bought in stores for mere dollars. Since each object looks exactly the same, it would only make sense that we would view both as having expressive and/or aesthetic properties. But these theories cannot account for the fact that we do not in fact view both objects as artwork but instead only one of them, and why that is.

Danto believes that the answer to this question is in part historical. “Not everything is possible at every time…meaning that certain artworks simply could not be inserted as artworks into certain periods of art history.” Objects which would have been considered artworks in one historical period could not be artworks in another historical period. Danto demonstrates this by using Robert Morris’s piles of hemp to show how such a work would be received in different times. While Morris can now exhibit this as an artwork, he would have been unsuccessful in doing so in seventeenth-century Antwerp, for instance, because “the concept of art had not then evolved in such a way as to be able to accommodate it as an instance.” In other words, we were not ready to receive Morris’s hemp piles as art until the time that he made them. This idea shares more with Hegel’s emphasis on history than with Kant’s timeless theory of beauty, because it emphasizes that art means certain things at certain times, and it would be impossible for art to have the same effect on people whether they lived in thirteenth-century China or twentieth-century America. Danto also uses an interesting example from language to highlight the importance of context in defining something as art. “You cannot identify something as witty, by any necessary attributes of it, for the same line in one context can be witty there but not in another,” he reminds us. Similarly, without the context of the red square paintings used in Danto’s earlier example, we would not know whether to treat it as Matisse’s work of art or as Giorgione’s primed canvas.

The other important part to answering this question is recognizing that there is a subject matter, a content, to Warhol’s Brillo Boxes, while for the identical brillo containers we could buy in a store there is not subject matter or content. This explains why Warhol can take artistic credit for the Brillo Boxes while whoever originally designed brillo containers cannot. Warhol used the Brillo Boxes to say something, to make a mundane object have “aboutness”. He uses these boxes to question our established notions of where you find art. This is what separates the visually identical brillo containers from the Brillo Boxes, a distinction that would have been lost in Kant’s theory.

    The idea of aboutness being helpful in identification of artworks does not by itself explain why some things that also have aboutness or semantic meaning, i.e. are representations, are not artworks as well. What makes some representations artworks and others not is whether they are interpreted as artworks. Danto explains this by likening the identification of an object as an artwork to a transformation of the object into art via interpretation. “In art, every new interpretation is a Copernican revolution, in the sense that each interpretation constitutes a new work, even if the object differently interpreted remains, as the skies, invariant under transformation. An object o is then an artwork only under an interpretation I, where I is a sort of function that transfigures o into a work: I(o) = W.” Even though what we saw did not change when Copernicus changed our understanding of the universe as centered on the Sun rather than the Earth, the way we thought about the universe and interpreted it was forever altered. Similarly, interpretation has the power to change a mere real thing into an artwork in our eyes.

The moment when a representation is given an interpretation is like the moment of linguistic representation being used to interpret objects. As Danto writes, interpretation, which is artistic identification, has as “its linguistic representation…a certain identificatory use of ‘is,’ which I shall merely designate the ‘is’ of artistic identification: as when one says a dab of paint that it is Icarus, or of a smudge of blue paint that it is the sky…It is a usage mastered in the nursery when the child pointing to a picture of a cat says that it is a cat.” When we identify a smudge of paint as sky, we are not literally identifying it as the sky, because it is not the real sky. This demonstrates the gap between both art and reality and language and reality. “Art differs from reality in much the same way that language does when language is employed descriptively…[art’s] ontology is of a piece with that of language, and…the contrast exists between reality and it which exists between reality and discourse.” Both art and language represent real things the world without being the real things themselves, and thus it is necessary for artistic and linguistic representations to have interpretations so that we can understand and identify them as art and language.

Continuing his theory of art as against the traditional use of aesthetic properties, Danto begins his argument as to why aesthetic properties cannot be used to define a representation as art by using the art theory of George Dickie. Dickie’s institutional theory of art, which states that a work of art is a “candidate for appreciation” if it is given that status by the artworld, which Dickie defines as, according to Danto, “an institutionally enfranchised group of persons who serve, so to speak, as trustees for the generalized musée imaginaire.” What this leads to according to Ted Cohen whom Danto also cites, “is that there are certain objects which cannot be appreciated, [and] the citizenry of the artworld is bounded by the constraints of appreciability and cannot by fiat declare just anything a work of art.” Cohen gives specific examples of objects that could not be appreciated aesthetically, and thus cannot be works of art. These include “ordinary thumbtacks, cheap white envelopes, the plastic forks given at some drive-in restaurants, [and] urinals.”

What Danto objects to in this view of art is that it is unclear “whether the claim is that these cannot be appreciated or simply cannot be appreciated favorably.” And if it is the case that the only things that are art are those which can be favorably appreciated, then Danto believes this theory unjustly leaves out the legitimate possibility for negative appreciation of works of art. “We are repelled, disgusted, even sickened by certain works of art. To restrict to the favorable cases the application of the epithet ‘work of art’ would be parallel to regarding moral considerations as arising only with persons and actions which had some ‘minimal potential value or worthiness.’” For Danto, whether a work is disgusting or not, it should be able to be aesthetically appreciated in some way. And even if it cannot be aesthetically appreciated, it should still be able to be a work of art. “Even granting that the thumbtack itself was beneath appreciation, it would not follow that an artwork materially like a mere thumbtack could not be appreciated; and that to which we might respond appreciatively would be the properties of the artwork without necessarily being the properties of the thumbtack.” Furthermore, to focus on appreciation of the aesthetic properties of an artwork could be, especially in some cases, to miss what is most important about the work altogether. While Dickie says we can appreciate Marcel Duchamp’s Fountain for its ordinary qualities which are also found in a normal urinal, and thus he defends his way of identifying art through aesthetic properties. But as Danto points out, this completely misses what is actual vital to understanding, let alone appreciating, Duchamp’s Fountain. Indeed, “If what made Fountain an artwork were only the qualities it shared with urinals, the question would arise as to what makes it an artwork and not those…[Dickie] has emphasized how something gets to be a work of art, which may be institutional, and neglected in favor of aesthetic considerations the question of what qualities constitute an artwork once something is one.”

Danto then offers his own view on why aesthetic properties are inadequate to identify works of art. While an artwork may have aesthetic qualities, one would have to know that the object is an artwork first, because real things versus artworks require different responses. “We may cry at a representation of a mother’s despair at the death of a child, but he would be hardhearted who just wept at the correspondent reality; the thing is to comfort and console.” Since we can respond aesthetically to both artworks and mere real things, we cannot depend on aesthetic properties to determine what objects are art and which are not.

Danto’s theory, which encompasses more artworks in a way that many theories of art do not, is useful in that it solves puzzling cases in the history of art, for example why some modern and contemporary artworks are in museums despite their close resemblance to a painted wall found in most homes or a toddler’s finger painting project. Yet while his theory can explain and perhaps comfort those who may be frustrated by how such simplistic works can be worth millions of dollars and be considered artistic achievements, it leaves one wondering whether such works actually deserve to be artworks. Against Dickie, Danto had defended works which may repulse us as still being worthy to be considered artworks. Yet is it fair to consider works as art those which are only about shocking us, and have no actual meaning or message behind them? While Danto’s theory requires us to still call such works art, we are still allowed to consider them terrible artworks. But depending on one’s reverence for the category of art, it may not sit right to let that category be so inclusive and allow the risk of it losing its respectability.

Works Cited

Danto, Arthur C. The Transfiguration of the Commonplace: A Philosophy of Art. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1981.


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